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Travel to Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 19, 2006 8:06 pm    Post subject: Travel to Kashgar, Xinjiang, China Reply with quote

Kashgar, Xinjiang has always been one of the places I'd like to visit. Although it is part of China, most of the residents in Kashgar are non-han Chinese. They speak a language belonging to the Turkish language family. They have different cultures and very few of them speak Mandarin.

However, according to my friend, when talking about his experience there, he says,

"I have been to Xinjiang, and I liked there very much. The ethical tension between the Chinese (Hans) and the Uygurs are not as bad as people think. It was very much exaggerated by the western media, because they WISH there is tension. When I was there, I was surrended by Uygurs, and I felt very safe and friendly. Still, Xinjiang is one of the places I like the most."

According to Time magazine, Kashgar has become a booming trading center for trades between China and central Asia.

See below for some paragraphs of the article:

The West Is Red
China has revitalized its territory along the ancient Silk Road?to trade, to source oil, and to extend its reach westward

His family and friends told him not to go. The roads were terrible. The people were even worse: rude, duplicitous, reeking of mutton. And there was nothing to trade, anyway, in that forlorn and forgotten stretch of land, where camel-humped mountains met endless sand dunes. Wasn't Xinjiang, in western China, merely the remote testing ground for the nation's nuclear weapons? But Huang Yinrong was determined. He hailed from eastern Zhejiang province, where Marco Polo had once marveled at the overflowing markets. Commerce was in Huang's blood. So in 1996 he boarded a rusting plane for Xinjiang's capital, Ur�mqi. A friend had told him that foreign steel was selling for cheap, and given that Xinjiang happened to border eight countries?Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India?Huang thought the place had potential for an import-export business. "At the time, everyone was reinventing themselves in China," recalls Huang. "I figured I had an advantage because I was going to find a new career in a place others didn't go."

(Notes: As a Chinese, I was also warned by many people in Beijing not to visit Kashgar, Xinjiang. I was told that people there hate Han Chinese... therefore it is dangerous.)

A millennium ago, it would have been unimaginable for an ambitious merchant not to be drawn to Xinjiang. The territory was, after all, the nexus of the ancient Silk Road, where the bazaars thronged with Nestorians, Sogdians, Arabs, Manicheans, Levantines, Koreans, Malays, even the odd Venetian. But when feuding tribes made overland travel perilous, and sea lanes to Cathay evolved into a safe alternative, the sturdy filaments of the Silk Road frayed. By the 13th century, Venice's wandering son was among the last waves of travelers on the venerable trade route.

In the 700 years since, empires?Mongol, Manchu, Soviet?have come and gone, and capitalism for a time even succumbed to the torpor of communism. But now a new caravan class is again navigating the Silk Road, and Huang Yinrong is among its vanguard. The year after he landed in Ur�mqi, he journeyed across the mountain pass to neighboring Kazakhstan, where a steel factory lay in the country's high steppes. For most of the train trip, he sat nervously hugging a briefcase filled with cash, as drunk Russians caroused around him. The only Russian he could remember from school?back when the language was still taught in a China yoked by ideology to the Soviet Union?was do svidaniya (goodbye); Huang prayed he wouldn't have to say do svidaniya to his money. At his destination, a snowstorm was raging. Huang had no hat, and his hair froze. But the bosses at the Kazakh plant, which is now owned by Mittal Steel, were impressed by this intrepid visitor clad only in a thin leather jacket. Though barely any trade trickled through the two nations because of lingering tensions from the Sino-Soviet split years before, they agreed to Huang's unorthodox plan to export steel to China. Today, most of Kazakhstan's processed iron ore is sent directly to its eastern neighbor. Huang had helped inaugurate a key spoke of the new Silk Road?and this time it was reinforced by steel.

(Most of Han Chinese people know very little history of the people who live in Kashgar, Xinjiang province. They were told very little about Kashgar's past.)

China's global emergence ranks as the greatest renaissance of our times. But, too often, we tell this redemptive tale only from its eastern fringes, ignoring the vast expanse of western China that laps up against Central and South Asia, and beckons toward the Middle East and Europe. Our language of commerce is English, and our attention rests on the "Made in China" containers shipped with mounting urgency from the country's coast. Yet it is in China's backyard, that immense Eurasian landmass, that a 21st century version of the Great Game is being played out. Unlike the last round, when a weakened Middle Kingdom could only watch as Russia and Britain battled for geopolitical dominance, this time China is leading the charge. "All these new paths lead to Xinjiang," says Jumagul Ashake, an ethnic Kyrgyz Chinese who, though the granddaughter of shepherds, works for a trading firm in the province's historic second city, Kashgar. "The new Silk Road is open for business," says the 24-year-old, cell phone and gold-rimmed sunglasses in hand. "And I want to be a part of it."

(Kashgar, Xinjiang could be a very good trading center for China, for its trade with countries in Central Asia)

Beijing is using the reborn Silk Road to trade, to satisfy its seemingly unquenchable appetite for natural resources, and to forge alliances with its western neighbors. Already, China has joined with Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia and most of the former Soviet Central Asian republics in a regional alliance of member states and observer nations called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). While hardly as prominent as the European Union, the SCO far outstrips the E.U. in terms of population and wealth of natural resources. In July, Asia's two giants, China and India, formally opened their border after more than 40 years of barbed-wire animosity. And in Pakistan, energy-starved China has helped finance the construction of the Gwadar deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea. Not only will Gwadar facilitate faster passage of Chinese goods to Europe, but the port will also bring Persian Gulf oil to China more quickly through Xinjiang. The roads and railways that will connect Gwadar to Kashgar are also being underwritten by the Chinese. So was the $700 million oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, which started commercial operations last month and marks the first time foreign oil has flowed directly into China.

Given China's enormous need for energy, Huang Yinrong has diversified his Silk Road business to include black gold as well as steel. The 55-year-old entrepreneur's various foreign ventures have made him a billionaire. Xinjiang has gotten richer too. When Huang arrived a decade ago, the territory was a backwater. Today, the capital, Ur�mqi, bristles with a pincushion of new high-rises and construction sites. Dusty streets where donkeys once roamed are now lined with BMW showrooms and strobe-lit nightclubs filled with Russian-speaking bar girls. Around town, billboards in Cyrillic and Arabic, the region's lingua francas of commerce, offer traders from Central Asia and beyond the best deals in long-distance trucks and air-freight shipping. Trade volume in this far-west boomtown jumped six times between 2002 and 2005. In Xinjiang as a whole, foreign trade in January-April 2006 increased 42% year-on-year, to $2.65 billion, the fastest growth rate among all of China's provinces.

Xinjiang may be far from everywhere, but it is as close to Europe as it is to Beijing. In this spirit of cross-pollination, Huang plans to register a company in the United Arab Emirates later this year. And even though he only finished primary school, Huang sent his daughter to university in London. But the entrepreneur who made his fortune in Xinjiang isn't too impressed by the British capital. "London isn't very developed compared to Ur�mqi," he says. "Here, there are so many new buildings being built, but in London most things are old." Marco Polo, too, must have distrusted the easy comfort of the past. For him, as with Huang, adventure and riches came from savoring the new, the unknown, the path less explored.

(It is true that China needs energy, and when I was young, I was told that Xinjiang has very large natural gas and oil reserves.)

An Explosion of Han
Few towns are more bleak than Alataw, a mountainous settlement on the border of western Xinjiang and eastern Kazakhstan. The outpost's few trees permanently hunch southward from the Siberian winds that whip past. Even at twilight, when other Chinese towns are usually filled with gossiping, snacking pedestrians, almost no one ventures out onto Alataw's streets?there's nothing to see or enjoy here. Yet Alataw is home to some 10,000 people, living mostly in a desultory scattering of low concrete blocks, and, by the end of this year, it will likely become the largest land port in China. As the only place in Xinjiang linked by railway to Central Asia, Alataw is positioned as a crossroads between East and West, the linchpin of what the Chinese have dubbed the Eurasian Continental Bridge, beginning in eastern China's Lianyungang city and extending for 10,900 km to Rotterdam. Shipping goods to Europe via road or railway, as opposed to by ocean, cuts the journey from 45 days to just 25. "[Alataw] looks like the middle of nowhere," says Li Zhong, an Ur�mqi entrepreneur who visits once a month. "But you have to go through here to get anywhere."

Kazakhs, Mongolians and Uighurs?a Muslim Turkic group that prospered in the old Silk Road's heyday?dominate the sere hills nearby. But Alataw is a town of outsiders. The settlement's boom, like those in other parts of Xinjiang, has been powered by a mass migration by China's ethnic majority, the Han. When the victorious People's Liberation Army marched to the far west in 1949, there were few Han living in Xinjiang. Five years earlier, the region's majority Uighurs, with the sanction of other minority populations, had declared the region to be the independent nation of East Turkestan. (A previous effort at sovereignty in 1933 had failed.) National currency was even printed. China, however, considered Xinjiang?Mandarin for "new dominion"?an inalienable part of the country, like Tibet to the south. To help populate Xinjiang with citizens who believed the province was inseparably Chinese, Han settlers were encouraged to migrate westward. The campaign worked: in 1949, 6% of Xinjiang was Han; today, if unregistered migrant workers and long-term soldiers stationed in Xinjiang are also counted, the Han outnumber the once majority Uighurs.

(This is true... but in Kashgar, the majority of people are still non-han Chinese)

Many Han came through the Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military force that began massive irrigation and city-building projects in the 1950s. Some of the Corps' recruits were demobilized soldiers, others were forcibly relocated as punishment for their capitalist pedigrees. Like the armies of farmers spurred by the U.S.'s Homestead Act to take Native American land, the foot soldiers of the Production and Construction Corps helped make the majority Uighurs a minority in their own home. Problems for the Uighurs didn't stop there. Worried that Islam would rival communism as a guiding ideology in people's lives, the Party cracked down on religious activity. Indeed, separatist Uighurs linked by the central government to a series of bombings in Xinjiang and Beijing in the 1990s have used Islam as one of their rallying cries. Even today, official regulations prohibit children and university students from praying or fasting. Uighurs who work for state companies are forbidden from wearing veils or sporting facial hair. Although thousands of mosques dot the Xinjiang landscape, few Uighurs seem willing to express fervent religiosity. "If we say we are religious, then the Han people think we are lazy and want to avoid work by praying all the time," says Turuson, a Kashgar taxi driver. By contrast, Han immigrants to Xinjiang openly display Buddhist or Taoist icons in their offices and restaurants.

Even today, the Corps employs more than 2 million Han, and the road from Alataw to Ur�mqi, 10 hours east by car, is lined with settlements with unwieldy names like Corps Division No. 82 Ranch. Such subsidized farming ventures have helped turn Xinjiang into one of China's biggest fruit producers, but the Uighurs were rarely given financial incentives to irrigate their small scraps of farmland. Nor can the Uighurs lay much claim over Ur�mqi, Xinjiang's booming metropolis, which is 80% Han. Designated the provincial capital by the communists, Ur�mqi entered the record books as the city furthest from the sea in the world. Trade on the new Silk Road has eliminated that sense of isolation. The international airport teems with merchants from Asia and Europe. Hotel-lobby clocks are set to times in Baku, Dubai and Frankfurt. At the giant free-trade zone in downtown Ur�mqi, Central Asian and Russian traders haggle with almost exclusively Han vendors over stilettos and stereos and Barbie dolls. A Kazakh customer named Alyona Andronova compares her ex-Soviet homeland to China: "In Ur�mqi, it's still supposed to be communist, but all everyone talks about is money, money, money."

Ur�mqi, and Xinjiang as a whole, have profited greatly from a Beijing-run program called Develop the West. Kick-started in 2000, the campaign has sought to level income disparity between industrialized Eastern China and the backward interior. With subsidies for megaprojects like a road through the Taklamakan Desert, Develop the West has done just that for many parts of Xinjiang. The infrastructure seed money has attracted foreign traders and investors, who in turn are catered to by more Han migrants. The circle of prosperity, though, has left out the majority of Uighurs. In Ur�mqi, these dispossessed locals walk around, prayer caps and veils on their heads, like colorful extras on a Han movie set. Want to buy a kebab, they call out, or dried apricots? The expensive commodities in the air-conditioned stores are mostly the province of the Han. This may be the capital of what was once East Turkestan, but the Uighurs are outsiders in their own homeland.

A New Faith
In many Muslim towns, the tallest structure is the mosque's minaret. In the ancient oasis of Kashgar, it is a 24-m statue of Chairman Mao Zedong on a platform. The symbolism is no mistake. Kashgar, unlike Ur�mqi, is around 80% Uighur. In a country with more Muslims than Malaysia, the city remains a religious center to which the faithful gravitate far more than to Ur�mqi, where some mosques have dispensed with five-times-a-day prayers to make way for groups of Han tourists. In Kashgar, an officially atheist overlord?and that's what the Chinese Communist Party is?proves a particularly tough fit.

In its two millennia of existence, Kashgar, near the borders with Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, has been ruled by practically every tribe that wandered through town: Tibetans, Xiongniu, Huns, Mongols, Han, western Turks. All were drawn by Kashgar's fabled bazaar, which even today brings merchants selling everything from pomegranate-emblazoned carpets and electronic equipment to the sturdiest of donkeys (when beast shopping, always check the teeth first). By the mid-19th century, the oasis had turned into a listening post for the Great Game, and the fancy consulates built by the competing Russians and British are still the most elegant buildings in town. In 1933, Kashgar briefly became the capital of the first of two separate attempts at an independent East Turkestan. The city's strategic position between the soaring Pamir Mountains and vast Taklamakan Desert gave the local Uighurs a sense of security?and autonomy?that the communists dispelled when they arrived in 1949. "It is a unique spectacle of Kashgar," reads the plaque accompanying the Chairman's likeness in People's Square, "that shows the deep feelings toward Chairman Mao held by Kashgar's people." After the Red Army's success in the Chinese civil war, Islam was to give way to a new religion in Xinjiang: the cult of communism.

For decades after Mao's statue went up, it towered over a medieval warren of mud-brick houses and trellised courtyards. Flocks of pigeons would circle the Chairman, then swoop past carved wooden balconies and smoke rising from ovens baking flat discs of Uighur bread. The call of the muezzin mixed with sing-song entreaties from the sherbet seller and traveling barber. Kashgar then didn't look so different from the days in the 13th century when Marco Polo rested here before tackling the Taklamakan. But starting in the 1980s, white tile-clad buildings began sprouting near People's Square, their ghostly hulks an otherworldly presence in this dun-colored city. Today, the balance has shifted. The remaining clumps of earthen houses are what look out of place amid Kashgar's concrete-and-tile sprawl. Two years ago, part of the famous open-air Sunday bazaar was converted into a massive metal-roofed warehouse. Inside the fluorescent-lit bazaar, the crowds of Kyrgyz horsemen, Tajik shepherds and burqa-enveloped Uighur matrons look vaguely constricted, their whispered comments on the array of goods echoing through the cavernous space. It is only when the shoppers pour out of the new market and descend on the nearby maze of outdoor stalls that their bodies seem to recover the confidence to shove and bargain and shop as they have for centuries. Saifullah Baig, a Pakistani soldier-turned-trader, first came to Kashgar a decade ago. "There was nothing here then, just mud houses and donkeys," he recalls, as he walks past blue glass-plated edifices that could be in Beijing or Chicago, save for the smell of lamb and cumin in the air. "I can't believe it's the same place."

Much of Kashgar's transformation comes not from the toil of its Uighur majority but, as elsewhere in Xinjiang, through the exertions of the Han. At the construction site for Dingxiang Garden, soon to be Kashgar's most luxurious apartments, 130 workers from the central Chinese province of Sichuan have labored 12-hour days to complete the complex on time. Like almost all major real estate projects in Kashgar, this development is owned by a Han company. Xian Guang, a sinewy 40-year-old, pauses in the middle of painting a stairwell to explain why no Uighurs work alongside him. "Construction work is very hard," he says. "The local people can't handle that."

The thrum of jackhammers has drawn traders from all over South and Central Asia, as well as the rest of China. The largest foreign population hails from nearby Pakistan, and with road access to the Arabian Sea via Gwadar nearing completion, businessmen like Sajjad Ali are dreaming big dreams. "It's a good time to be here," he says, as he sips milky tea at Kashgar's Pakistani Caf�, where homesick South Asians come for comfort food. "I am encouraging more and more Pakistanis to come and take advantage of the trade." Already, Pakistanis can return home and sell Chinese goods for double what they paid in Xinjiang. Now, with Gwadar opening up, they will be able to shepherd Chinese goods on to the Middle East and Europe. "China is growing into a powerful dragon," says Ali, "but the rest of Asia can go along for the ride."

On the dusty outskirts of Kashgar, past mule-drawn carts and shepherds driving straggly flocks of goats, stands a reminder that the dragon has arrived in Kashgar, too. In December, Hisense, one of China's largest TV makers, opened a manufacturing base here. The company aims to churn out 300,000 TVs a year, all destined for Central Asia. Hisense's factory is helmed by Wang Jiangming, who, like many locally born Han, has benefited from Kashgar's commercial boom. In contrast, the majority of Uighurs were never schooled in Mandarin, so they can't get work at the Han companies flooding into Xinjiang. On this day, Hisense's assembly line is manned by Han workers like Cao Wei, a 19-year-old who grew up in Xinjiang and sees a future far beyond the assembly line. "When I was a boy," he says, "I thought I would have to leave to become successful, but now I realize that Kashgar is the right place to be."

Plenty of Uighurs profess to feel the same way. "When I was 30 years old, we never had enough food for the next day," says Noorun, a 74-year-old seamstress whose entire dowry consisted of a pair of shoes and a piece of cloth. "Now, I have plenty to eat. I thank the Communist Party for that." Gratitude to the communists is something that many Uighurs are quick to point out publicly. Attempts to ask about inequity in pay between locals and Han often bring conversations to a halt. So do questions about Rebiya Kadeer, once one of Xinjiang's richest Uighur entrepreneurs until she was jailed for nearly six years after trying to brief visiting U.S. congressional staffers on Han discrimination against her ethnic brethren. (Kadeer is now in exile in the U.S., where she campaigns against continuing repression of Uighur religious and cultural freedoms.) Abruptly changing the subject from local whispers?later reported by international human-rights groups?that at least one of Kadeer's children had been beaten up by police that week, Abdulkarim, a carpet-store manager, loudly describes how he and other Uighurs flooded Kashgar's People's Square in 1976 to mourn the death of Chairman Mao. "It was the saddest day of my life," he says. "We cried and cried." Yet Abdulkarim, it turns out, is only 23 years old and wasn't born until seven years after Mao died. "We were taught," he says quietly, "that we were supposed to be very sad."

The Uighurs are now being instructed that they should be very happy. Kashgar, their most beloved of cities, is again a key axis of global trade. Even though few Uighurs can speak Mandarin fluently, their Turkic roots mean they can communicate with a broad arc of traders all the way from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan and Turkey. "Kashgar is an ancient city with a great civilization, but for so long no one knew that," says Uighur businessman Ahemaja Kaxija. "Now people from all over recognize us, and I am proud of that."

Certainly, Uighurs like Obuli Ishmael, whose family has maintained a pharmacy in the Sunday bazaar for three generations, are profiting from the world's attention. Among the products cramming Ishmael's shop are Iranian saffron, Pakistani lotions, Korean ginseng, Indian balms and Indonesian spices. "Business is much better now because there are so many foreigners coming through Kashgar," he says in Mandarin, grinning after selling a particularly expensive batch of Tibetan herbs to Han customers. For many Xinjiang natives?poor, uneducated, marginalized?the influx of Han and foreign traders only underlines the opportunities they do not have. But for Ishmael and a whole new band of merchants, the Silk Road is once again the path to prosperity.
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